'This is really happening': Autonomous mowers help solve the labor shortage at DuPage sites
They're guaranteed at least a double take from curious onlookers.
When Ilya Sagalovich and his team unload their riding mowers and turn them loose on Monarch Park in Naperville, it's quickly clear these aren't normal grass cutters.
That second glance confirms the riding mowers have no riders.
Naperville-based Havenshine Technologies developed the autonomous electric mowers, capable of cutting acres of grassland with little human effort. The Naperville Park District and Morton Arboretum are among the clients currently testing the mowers as interest grows in the burgeoning technology.
They might look strange in action -- rolling on their own like giant Roomba vacuum cleaners -- but autonomous mowers may represent the future of landscaping.
Not only do the mowers offer a solution for the continuing labor crunch, Sagalovich said, but they're also environmentally friendlier, quieter and require less maintenance than gas-powered counterparts.
"I'm always telling people who can't believe their eyes that this is really happening," said Sagalovich, a software engineer specializing in robotics. "We're trying to define what a smart city means."
The Naperville Park District has struggled the last few years to fill seasonal jobs, so much so that cash incentives were introduced to attract new employees.
It's one of the many reasons Tim Quigley, the district's director of parks, was drawn to the idea of autonomous mowers.
Havenshine's Mean Green mowers are cutting more than 20 acres at three parks. While the rate of $29.80 per acre for the one-year contract is more than the cost of contracting human-operated riding mowers, Quigley still sees the long-term benefit of shifting to autonomous mowers.
"We're becoming more and more comfortable with seeing them out in the field," Quigley said. "We could certainly see this expanding in the future."
Todd Jacobson, head of landscape horticulture at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, said the autonomous mowers represent an opportunity to reallocate resources.
The mowers require only one person to keep an eye on them, and that person could trim trees, weed, mulch or complete various other tasks while the grass gets cut. Once the technology advances further, Jacobson said, he envisions the mowers tending to more difficult areas such as the sloped berms along Interstate 88.
He also sees the mowers being used during off hours to maximize usage. For park districts, where playing fields are used constantly during the spring, summer and fall, the ability to mow anytime with minimal labor would be an obvious benefit.
"We're always having work, like trim work, that we sometimes don't get to because we're mowing all the grounds," Jacobson said. "This has the potential where we could have some of the mowers run overnight."
Advances in GPS and other technologies allowed the autonomous mowers to be developed relatively quickly. Sagalovich said he designed the prototype in about a year.
To use the mowers, an operator at the start of the season rides them along the perimeter of the grounds while the software stores a map of the path and the terrain. When the route is stored, the mowers can begin navigating on their own.
The mowers are ideal for clear areas, but the technology also takes note of trees, manholes, goal posts and other obstacles to avoid. Safety mechanisms force the mowers, which average about 6 mph, to stop automatically when a person, animal or other unexpected object crosses their path. The blades also stop automatically.
Once the operator, who can stop the mowers remotely, clears the obstruction, the mowers are free to continue. At Monarch Park and elsewhere, signs are posted to warn visitors about the mowers in use.
"This type of monotonous work is becoming less appealing to the human sector," said Michael Bidga, Havenshine's vice president of business development. "The autonomy isn't taking away jobs. It's actually assisting potential clients that can't get people to do the work on a consistent basis."
Sagalovich said the future model for his business, which he started in 2019, still is unknown. Ideally, he'd like to sell the mowers to entities like the Naperville Park District and Morton Arboretum.
Regardless, he expects the popularity to soar as the mowers become more widely accepted.
"We could see these being used at airports, college campuses, all sorts of places," Sagalovich said. "We're exploring everything."